European courts and African servants: A long tradition

Afrikaanse bedienden aan het Haagse Hof

African servants: A long tradition

European courts employed people of African descent between the fourteenth and the nineteenth centuries. They were often offered as a ‘present’ to a ruler, and fulfilled a variety of roles, such as musician, banner holder, soldier or envoy.

But in most cases they were employed as servants.

Servants with a dark skin tone were seen as an exotic status symbol. In their role as servant, they onderscored the wealth and power of European masters.

detail; Portrait of Maria of Orange (1642-1688), With Hendrik van Zuijlenstein and a servant, Jan Mytens, ca 1665,, Mauritshuis Den Haag
detail; Portrait of Maria of Orange (1642-1688), With Hendrik van Zuijlenstein and a servant, Jan Mytens, ca 1665, Mauritshuis Den Haag

They fulfilled an important public role for their employers, for example in theatrical parties and ceremonies. Their presence gave a court an international allure in the theater of power.

Above detail from Portrait of Maria of Orange (1642-1688), With Hendrik van Zuijlenstein and a servant, shows a young African servant holding a horse’s reins. It is a commonly-used motif in painting.  This was based on reality: A number of black servants are known to have worked in the stabels.

Maria van Oranje Mytens Mauritshuis DSC_3327
The boy with the pearl earring, Mauritshuis

The boy wears a pearl earring and a fancy dress costume which refers to classical antiquity. The identity of the boy depicted here is unfortunately not known. His gaze is on Maria of Orange, as if he is waiting to see what she will do.

Works of art depicting African servants were almost always commissioned by their lord or lady and depict an unequal power relationship. They show how Europeans wanted to view their foreigh servants: subservient and exotic. In portraits, the servants are mainly depicted as children.

Johanna Charlotte of Anhalt Dessau with possibly Leopold.Städtischen Museum Herford
Johanna Charlotte of Anhalt Dessau with possibly Leopold. Environment of Antoine Pesne after 1729 Städtischen Museum Herford

Johanna Charlotte of Anhalt Dessau is one of the granddaughters of Frederik Hendrik of Orange and Amalia of Solms.

This portrait shows Johanna Charlotte with one of her servants. It may well be Leopold,  a boy who entered into her service at 7 years of age and had been purchased by her. He served her for sixteen years and was paid a salary. The relation between the two is more intimate than in many other portraits involving African servants. The abbess has an arm around the boy. He in turn does not look at her subserviently, but has his gaze on us. the viewer.

Johanna Charlotte of Anhalt Dessau with possibly Leopold. Städtischen Museum Herford
Possibly Leopold. Städtischen Museum Herford

All photos on this site are not intended for any commercial purpose. I have tried to trace all the rules and rights of all images. As far as I know, these images can be used in this way. If you ar a copyright holder and would like a piece of your work removed or the creditline changed then please do not hesitate to contact me.


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  1. Thank you for this post. I’m curious about word choice; you mention people of African descent were “employed as servants,” but you also write that Johanna Charlotte “purchased” Leopold. “Employed as servants” makes it seem as it if they were remunerated for their work, whereas “purchased” makes it clear these individuals were enslaved. Which is correct?

    1. Dear Kathleen. Thank you for this remark. In the Netherlands (House of Orange) both were correct. The African children who came to the court were enslaved. They received after arrival a good education and became servants with sometimes a very good salary. The same seems to be the case with Leopold. (court culture) .
      Literature: Thorsten Hees, ‘Von Mohren und Menschen. Der afrikanische Diener der Äbtissin Johanna Charlotte’, Historische Jahrbuch für den Kreis Herford. 1997

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